Turning Down the Heat

UMD to Help Guide Implementation of Global Climate Agreement
by Chris Carroll | photo courtesy of Getty Images and Thomas Imo

When it’s time to save the world, Robert C. Orr, dean of the School of Public Policy since 2014, steps into a phone booth and tears away his business suit to reveal… another business suit. (Did you expect tights and a cape at the United Nations?) Orr moonlights as a U.N. under secretary-general and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s right-hand man on climate change. As negotiators at the U.N.’s Paris climate conference in December neared a landmark global warming agreement, he took a break to tell Terp about his transition from diplomacy to academia, and plans for May’s international climate summit in Washington, D.C., co-sponsored by UMD.

TERP: How did you go from U.N. official to dean?

Orr: I’ve been in a high-level policy practitioner role for the last decade at the United Nations addressing some of the biggest global challenges: climate change, counterterrorism, energy, poverty and hunger. But I wanted to return to an academic setting to focus on the conceptual breakthroughs that enable long-term solutions. Academia has gotten more specialized and segmented, while the problems are increasingly complex and interconnected. I wanted to go to a public policy school that emphasizes integration and interdisciplinary work.

TERP: When it comes to climate, what are the stakes?

Orr: The stakes couldn’t be bigger. The planet is warming at an increasing and alarming rate, but we have solutions that for the first time could address the issue at scale if we can mobilize them. The technologies for renewable energy sources like solar, wind and geothermal, as well as the economics of the situation, are moving in our favor. It’s incumbent that we set the policy framework to address global warming in the timeframe required.

TERP: Did the Paris conference accomplish that?

Orr: This was different from any of the previous 10 climate conferences I’ve attended. Not only did all the governments come ready to strike a deal and were truly seeking a deal, but you saw massive coalitions of mayors, governors, ceos and civil society pushing them and prepared to work with them to implement it. This is brand new.

TERP: What's the next step?

Orr: Everyone knows that an agreement on paper that does not get applied immediately on the ground is not a deal worth making. The secretary-general of the United Nations has announced seven partners, including the University of Maryland, that will hold the Climate Action 2016 summit in Washington, D.C., on May 5 and 6. [In addition, UMD will host the Climate Action 2016 forum at Stamp Student Union on May 4 to involve the academic community, civic and business leaders in climate research and policy discussions.] It will address central climate issues that can be taken on quickly and robustly, including cities, energy, climate-smart land use, financing, resilience and providing analytical tools needed to continuously implement what was agreed to in Paris.

TERP: Will Maryland have a role in the analysis part?

Orr: In the new climate regime, governments will need data, information and analysis to constantly refine their policies to reduce greenhouse gasses and improve resilience. Key universities in capitals around the world can work together to provide this. Because of our location and strengths in specific research areas, UMD is poised to take a central role in a global research network. We’re mobilizing the entire university behind this agenda in a cross-disciplinary way, because we know that working together we can make a unique contribution.


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